Kinabalu National Park Hiking Trails

Kinabalu National Park Hiking Trails - are they worth it?

Climbing Mount Kinabalu is perhaps the most famous of all Borneo’s adventure activities. But is it possible to go to Malaysia’s Kinabalu National Park and not visit the sacred 4,095m peak. Yes it is. Are there other things to do such as hike nature trails? Yes there are. Is it worth going? Erm, I’m not sure I can give a one word answer to that.

We’d been travelling through Central and South America for seven and a half months before landing in Singapore, exploring and then moving on to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. In that time I’d scaled an impressive number of peaks (Rose doesn’t have the desire to wear herself out at a high altitude). Mountains and volcanoes were conquered left right and centre. I even climbed four in a week once! So by the time we hit Borneo, I just didn’t feel the need to climb another.

Don’t get me wrong, Mount Kinabalu looks incredible. My jaw hit the floor when I first saw it. Not a rising peak, but rather a huge, almost flat mountain. It looked like no other I’ve ever seen. An impressive sight indeed. Yet I didn’t feel the need to try and show it who’s boss. I was happy to gaze in awe and not try to scale it.

So what other options are there for visiting Kinabalu National Park if you’re not going to try and climb the mother ship. There are actually nine hiking trails in the lowlands, many of which contain an alleged wealth of birds. That sounded highly appealing, so off we went.

Kinabalu National Park Nature Trail hiking
Happy times, despite the poorly maintained trails

Upon arrival we checked in to the Kinabalu National Park Resort and left our bags at reception. We asked at the Information Point which were the best walks for birds. A member of staff popped a map on the counter and shooed us away. Could this be the only unfriendly and unhelpful person in Malaysia?

Keen to get started we ventured down to the Bundu Tuhan View Trail. It descends down windy paths through tropical rainforest and is a good introduction to the area. I say good introduction because you get a feel for the place and also the abysmal signage.

Spiky tree
Don’t mess with this tree

Many of the paths connect to others, so it’s possible to spend most of the day hiking and not have to leave one and walk a long way to start another. Yet the signs are quite frankly awful. When we first saw a sign and scratched our heads confusingly at which way to go next, I thought we were just being silly. Yet a group of fellow trekkers arrived shortly after and did the same thing.

Deciding on a route, we crossed a bridge and were then greeted with another sign…which was incorrect. Throwing caution to the wind we set off in the opposite direction and met some more trekkers. They were going the wrong way from another path and were stood at a crossroads. “Is it straight on? Or do we go up the hill?”. Maps were rotated to all angles and with no clear indication, the lady said wisely “I’ll just go back the way we came and keep the river to the left”. Sensible!

We were about to undertake the steepest two paths ‘Bukit Tupai’ and ‘Bukit Burung’. In Malay, ‘Bukit’ means hill, so you get the idea of what you’ll be in for. They were steep paths zig zagging through the forest, but neither were too tiresome on the legs. Rose is usually the first to protest at a steep ascent, but was running along pretending to be an aeroplane. (I put this down to going crazy from the signposts).

Aeroplane impression
Rose was losing her mind and became an aeroplane

After the two Bukit trails we were going to join the ‘Mempening Trail’. Yet guess what? The sign pointed in the wrong direction. A steep but pleasant hike took us in a huge loop and back to the start of the Bukit Tupai’ trail. So up we went again. This was now staring to get tiresome. Returning to the bad sign, we decided to do what we did early and go the wrong (but actually correct way). A few hundred metres up the path a sign appeared telling us its name. You can guess it was wrong. Another few metres and there was a sign that had the correct name. Then a few metres more and the same sign was reconfirming its name. For such a prestigious UNESCO sight, the maintenance of the trails can be summarised as ‘absolute crap’.

Poor trail signage
It says that way…but is it really?!

As I talked of earlier, we had come to try and spot the beautiful birds. It would be foolish to say the birds aren’t there, but even with our well trained retinas we failed to spot many at all. There weren’t even that many birds calling. 

After a few hours we came out at the end of the Mempening Trail and on to the road. This is the path that would lead you to the start of the mountain summit. Instead we were going to visit the Bukit Ular Trail. This was a steep half hour trek up hill from our location, but a trail which promised “secretive and rare birds such as Everett’s Thrush Blue Banded Pitta; both endemic to Borneo”.

This was to be our moment.

Kinabalu National Park hiking trail closed
The Bukit Ular Trail has been closed for a long time

It was a colossal blunder though. The Bukit Ular Trail was closed. Not only that, but it transpired that it had been closed for a year already. The less than helpful park staff hadn’t told us, nor was there any indication on the map. To make matters worse, it’s the furthest one away from the park entrance. So, back down the hill we went.

The UNESCO symbol at the Kiau Gap
The UNESCO symbol at the Kiau Gap

The saving grace in heading that far up is the Kiau Gap View. Here you can see far across the valleys and gaze up at Mount Kinabalu peak, with a huge waterfall cascading down in the distance.

Rolling hills by Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu as seen from the Kiau Gap…sadly on a cloudy day

We were fortunate to have time on our side and planned to potentially stay two days. Yet within one day we had walked most of the trails. The confusing routes didn’t give the usual feeling of ‘getting lost is part of the adventure’. The staff were useless. The trails themselves were pleasant, but certainly nothing new to write home about.

Maybe we were frustrated with being promised an amazing bird watching experience and finding few. Yet, we always approach these things with low expectations, as you never know. Perhaps we were jaded, having been spoiled over time with so many hikes and nature trails. 

But this is Kinabalu National Park; the jewel in Malaysian Borneo’s crown and it was just a massive let down.

So, would I recommend going to Kinabalu National Park just to hike the trails? No. I don’t think so. It’s not bad, but for a seasoned traveller it won’t offering anything new. If it’s part of your first adventure and you go with low expectations, I think you’ll see it from another perspective.

Kinabalu National Park Nature Trail Hiking Maps

These images are the maps given to us in the park. Take them with a pinch of salt:

Map of the Kinabalu National Park Hiking Trails
Kinabalu National Park Nature Trail Hiking Map
Description of each hiking trail at Kinabalu National Park
A description of each hiking trail

Accommodation at Kinabalu National Park

Kinabalu National Park Resort is the only accommodation available within the park’s boundaries. They have numerous lodges of varying quality available at a hugely inflated price compared to the local village of Kundasang. Check here to find the best deals. 

Where is Mount Kinabalu National Park?

It is located in the state of Sabah in northern Malaysian Borneo. 

How to get there

Buses from Kota Kinabalu (KK) leave the Padang Merdeka square when full (12 people) and the cost is RM25 ($ USD) one way. Try and be at the bus station around 8AM to give yourself plenty of time. By late morning the minibuses will have stopped running. The journey take two hours.

You can also get there from Sandakan. Buses leave from the terminal and any bus that goes to KK will pass the entrance to Kinabalu National Park. The journey takes five hours and costs approximately RM30.

Entry Fee

It is just RM15 to enter the park. This is a one time fee and doesn’t need to be paid every day you are there.

Get the best value accommodation in Kinabalu here:


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